In Swiffer, a pet project that went big
Gianfranco Zaccai, founder of the Continuum consulting firm in Newton, is a pet lover, which may help explain why his staff invented the Swiffer, the floor-cleaning tool with the bright green handle and disposable cloth.
With two big dogs and five cats, Zaccai keeps both the wet and dry models in his Needham home and Milan apartment.
The Swiffer, which became a blockbuster for Procter & Gamble Co. after it was unveiled in 1999, is among the many products Zaccai and his company have either invented, engineered, or designed in the past three decades. Continuum has come up with ergonomic patient chairs for hospitals, developed an instant-car service for the automaker Audi, and created the Stages line of disposable diapers for Pampers, to name only a few.
The staff includes designers, engineers, and business strategists who often hold multiple advanced degrees and tend to be deeply engrossed in their hobbies, from robotics to gourmet cooking. Customers come to them looking for the next big thing or with a prototype that needs improving.
The company will put video cameras on bottles to see how people drink or in bathrooms to see how they bathe (with permission). Such studies allow Continuum to design products for the way people use them, from changing the shape of a chocolate bar for the Italian confectioner Perugina to creating a new tube-style sour cream dispenser for Daisy Brand LLC.
The Swiffer came into existence after Continuum researchers videotaped people cleaning their homes and realized just how much people hated touching dirty mops. They also realized that most dirt in the home is primarily dust that could be picked up electrostatically.
Most people ask him about the Swiffer, Zaccai said, but his favorite project is the OmniPod. A little bigger than the hole of a doughnut, it is a tubeless insulin dispenser that attaches to the skin with an adhesive. In 2000, Continuum helped a startup develop a device that would be discreet to use, particularly for children who might be self-conscious about wearing one.
Today, that startup, Insulet Corp. of Billerica, is a public company with more than $324 million in revenue.
“Development really depends on empathy for what’s going on,” Zaccai said. “It’s definitely work understanding what people say, what they do, and what they care about.”